This week a video game reviewer posted a short clip from a Nintendo Switch racing game featuring one of the most confusing pieces of music I've ever heard.
Chris Scullion, who is reviewing the game Future Aero Racing S Ultra for Nintendo Life posted a clip from the game to his twitter on Tuesday. He captioned it, "I'm not being funny here but this is the worst music I've heard in a game for years." He wasn't being funny, but the song very much is.
Future Aero Racing S Ultra is a fun homage to the futuristic racing F-Zero, but this song is atonal in a way that actively hurts me to listen to. Given just how strange this piece of music is, Scullion's tweet blew up, with people trying to untangle the weirdness of the song in the comments. Tony Manfredonia, a composer who works in video games, even went to the lengths of transcribing Scullion's clip to sheet music in order to figure out why this piece of music sounds like that. In it, he says that most of what we're reacting to as being "off" is that each of the samples used in the song is in a different key.
"One melody is in B-minor alongside the vocalist, another is in F-minor, and the bass line is centered around E," Manfredonia told me. "Throw them all together, and you get a very bi-tonal effect."
Composer and musician 2 Mello also said that the clashing keys are what makes the song sound so weird. If you play back Scullion's clip, you can hear that in the beginning, the song sounds comparatively normal, but as soon as each new element drops in, it becomes more and more chaotic as they all clash with each other.
"The elements that drop in are in a different key from the other elements and from each other, too. So the song sounds so disturbing because you're hearing 2-3 sounds in different keys at once," 2 Mello told me. "This is what would happen if someone was playing Fuser and it wasn't automatically matching the keys of the songs for you."
2 Mello speculated that this song ended up this way just from a lack of experience with writing music. Beyond just the obvious wrongness of these tones, Mello also said that the track itself isn't mixed very well, and that all the sounds—especially the vocal melody—feel unpolished.
"I think it could be some stock loops thrown together by a novice who ended up liking how ridiculous it sounded," he said.
Manfredonia said that so many things can go wrong while exporting music for a video game, including the kinds of errors that make songs sound out of key or otherwise dissonant. But in transcribing and playing the song himself, he also found a way to show how much even the instrumentation used for the song from Future Aero Racing S Ultra can make it a little bit less terrifying.
"In my little transcription, I chose playback sounds that were vastly different in timbre or color, which made the overall dissonance a bit less jarring," Manfredonia said. "Something to learn from this, I suppose, is that sound sets, synths, or samples can either add to harmonic dissonance or reduce it."
The song itself doesn't kick in until the second set of race tracks, but it immediately makes itself known once you reach the Paradise Beach track in the Neutron Cup. It plays, looped, for the entire race. While the music for Future Aero Racing S Ultra hasn't turned me off from the game entirely, I might choose my own soundtrack from here on out.